Horse Training: On Pain and Intimidation

As a young man I worked with wild horses. We can speculate on whether we smell or look like predators to them or not, but no matter whether our attitude is peaceful or aggressive, they are prey animals. Left alone in the hills and herds, they are afraid of humans and will fight when cornered. When they have the option, they will flee from us.  Therefore the first confrontation with a human is the most dangerous for horse and  trainer.  In its panic the horse may injure itself in attempting to escape, or attack its would-be assailant when trapped.  Intimidation because of fear was unavoidable with these wild horses when in close contact with humans.

I drove these horses into a small pen, caught them with a lariat, snubbed them to a post and then sacked them with a horse blanket.  They fought with the post at the end of four or five feet of rope. The first moments of being tied were the most violent as they fought against the post and the halter, but they quickly learned that they were causing their own pain by their struggles and within a few minutes they stopped bashing themselves against the rope, halter and post. The total trauma lasted about twenty minutes. It took somewhat less time, maybe five to ten minutes, for them to stop fighting the rope. Gradually as the blanket was flapped against them, the panic subsided, then receded to shying, then to flinching and finally calm.  After two sessions like this they not only got used to being tied but the sacking relaxed them to the point where they seemed to enjoy it.

Sometimes the horses would ding their faces on the post and I received a few bruises and scrapes, but basically neither I nor the horses sustained any serious injuries, although I heard of serious injuries sustained by both horses and trainers who were doing the same kind of training.  However, the goal of the sacking, as I understood it, was never to inflict pain until they behaved nicely or intimidate them into submission.  The goal of the sacking was to condense the exposure to humans into a short session until the human no longer seemed a threat. The method did work. The horses learned to stand, allowing the trainer to handle them with no apprehension or fear, calmly receiving the halter, the flapping blanket and the saddle.

Those were wild days with the wild horses.  Now for many years I have been training the barnyard horses that are domestic and handled. A naive horse enthusiast might consider these pet horses to be less violent, therefore less dangerous, and therefore there would be less pain and intimidation, but this is not necessarily so.   If it is safer for me these days it is because I have somebody to haul me to the hospital if the need arises or it’s safer now because I have gotten more skilled at managing horse and human conflict.  The barnyard horse is essentially the same as a wild horse–hard wired by a thousand generations. He is still a horse, a prey animal. The fight or flight instinct is intact and ready to ignite.  I was astounded to discover this truth after working with the untouched horses.  The barnyard horses are more dangerous and difficult to train than the wild ones.  My theory for this paradoxical truth is that the barnyard horse is more difficult because he is familiar with our ways and weaknesses.  Since the awe and mystery of the human is gone, the barnyard horse is more willing to fight, rather than to flee or be paralyzed with fear, as his wild brother.

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